Review: Lessons in Chemistry, by Bonnie Garmus
At turns funny and witty but also an all out assault on misogynistic 50s America, Garmut gives us a formidable character of such integrity and strength we would choose Elizabeth Zott to help us survive on a desert island such are her practical skills.
One way to read Bonnie Garmus’ novel Lessons in Chemistry is as a 21st century fantasy as to how all right thinking women would like to think they would have thought and acted in 1950s America. And for that matter just about anywhere in the world. With wit, enlightened thinking and sheer smartness they would have been the accidental TV host of Supper at Six. If I was a woman that’s what I would think. But I’m not.
Protagonist Elizabeth Zott is almost too good to be true in one sense. Beautiful, intelligent, determined, talented and good at everything she touches she blows away social obstacles put in her way – mostly by men but also by women like the Miss Frisk and even manages to survive a rape without it destroying her mentally.
If there had been a thousand Elizabeth Zotts in the early 1950s then perhaps equal opportunities, equal pay and maternity leave might have happened sooner. As it was in the USA the The Equal Pay Act was passed by Congress in 1963 and a clause in the 1964 Civil Rights Act banned sex discrimination in the workplace. Both laws had to wait a little longer to happen in this country although passing a law and seeing it enforced are two very different things.
From US writer Betty Friedan (The Feminine Mystique1963) to the 1970 book The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer, there have been plenty of women who have paved the way for reform and reappraisal of society and how women should have the same opportunities as their male counterparts.
Another way to view the novel is as an illustration into how far women have come in society since those male chauvinistic days – which sadly are still with us in many aspects of life. And in many countries from Iran and Afghanistan to Somalia to Syria today’s women don’t even come close to the rights enjoyed in 1950’s America. But in England there have been women prime ministers, women bishops, women entrepreneurs and this month a Women’s World Cup Football Competition on prime time TV. Since those far off times society has changed – with role models from Barbara Castle to Madonna – plus the contraceptive pill and access to higher education that have all been catalysts for transformation.
The third way to view Lessons in Chemistry is as damn good read. It’s funny, has some brilliant lines and above all reads well with plot twists and unexpected events keeping the pages turning. We quickly identify with Elizabeth Zott as she battles against prejudice at the research laboratory with courage, determination and logic as an expert in abiogenesis for which her colleagues take the credit.
It’s a novel with a lot of depth – from notes on the world of rowing to the pack lunches she makes for her daughter Madeleine and the anthropomorphic novel within a the novel with her dog called Six Thirty. And of course there’s the chemistry – which Garmus makes interesting – I failed chemistry at school but if I had been taught by Elzabeth Zott I may not have learned anything more but I would have had a crush on her.
There’s her tragic love interest in Calvin Evans – and his back story and of course his mother Avery Parker who also appears in a plot Charles Dickens would have been proud of. And there’s her interaction with a host of characters from her doctors to her neighbours and the television people who try their hardest to package her into the perfect housewife come TV chef and fail due to her stubborn resistance and practical good sense as she introduces the hit show with: ‘My name is Elizabeth Zott and this is Supper at Six.”
There is a series based on the novel out later this year on Apple TV+.
Rapscallion Magazine is an online publication edited by Harry Mottram
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